Entrepreneurs: Bernie de Le Cuona — the South African fabric fanatic weaving her magic for world’s wealthiest shoppers

Laura Onita
Choppy seas: De Le Cuona has weathered a financial crash, a monsoon and a huge online fraud with her business: Matt Writtle

When the investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, Bernie de Le Cuona feared for her high-end fabrics business. People were spending less on decorating their homes and yachts and so she had to put her prices up.

“I decided that the only way for me to survive was to go to the top end of the luxury market,” says de Le Cuona, who set up her eponymous business in the capital in 1992.

Although her decision alienated some customers, it helped her keep the company afloat until it was safe to drop the prices again.

“This is the way of business,” she says matter-of-factly when we meet in a café near her newly opened £800,000 flagship store at 44 Pimlico Road. “Sometimes we’ve grown dramatically, then the economy changed and things dropped.”

The business is now expected to turn over £10 million by the end of March, the same as last year, and has 45 staff. It also has two showrooms, in Chelsea Harbour and New York, and a string of distributors across the world.

So far, the founder has sold most of her fabrics, often inspired by her trips to the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg or the Royal Gardens of Versailles in France, to interior designers or architects globally.

Customers have included Nicky Haslam, who has decorated for the Queen, and Ralph Lauren’s home division. Fabric for cashmere curtains could cost up to £1000 a metre, while the basic linen is £100 a metre. It also sells cushions and other accessories.

The store in Pimlico marks a change of tack. The entrepreneur will start selling some of the textiles and accessories made of cashmere, linen, wool, silk and alpaca directly to shoppers. “Retail is the place to be. I know many people don’t think that, but I do. There’s so much talk of shopping online but this is the time to give people the experience that everybody talks about within retail.”

De Le Cuona, the middle child, was born and raised in Pretoria, South Africa. Her father was an engineer and her mother didn’t work. After she studied architectural design she went travelling for a couple of years and ended up settling in Britain. To make a living, she agreed to help out a friend who owned a carpets business in India.

“I saw how incredibly clever they were with fabrics. I thought, ‘I’m sure I can do something.’” She didn’t have a business plan, but had a simple model: “I knew that I needed to buy things and sell them for more than I bought them for.”

She didn’t want to borrow money (“at that stage I just got divorced”) so she taught aerobics to make ends meet. She ordered the fabric in small quantities from India. Her second delivery, however, almost toppled her plans. It got caught in a monsoon and arrived damp. She decided to seek out weavers in Europe and hasn’t looked back since.

She explains that the weavers she works with have to be prepared to experiment and try unusual techniques, such as washing the fabrics with golf balls “to give it a lovely feel”, until she is satisfied with the end product.

It can take up to three months to create a new fabric and in one instance it took years, which explains the hefty price tags. She adds: “I don’t do fabrics like the rest of our industry. I’m not knocking them, everybody has their niche, but we don’t print, and we only weave.”

The entrepreneur, who owns the whole business, has grown it organically from her kitchen table, with help from one other employee at first. She would bring the fabric bolts home from the airport, cut them, repackage them and sell them. When her fledgling start-up outgrew her home, she rented an office in Windsor, where most of the staff are still based, and has opened two warehouses since.

She claims the business has been profitable from “day one” and has no exit plans. “I can’t believe I ever would, but who knows. It depends on the opportunity.”